The Russian invasion of Ukraine has quickly turned into Europe’s deadliest conflict since World War Two. After months of a protracted war, in which Russia consolidated gains in the Donbas region and the south, Ukraine went on the offensive with key victories in Kharkiv and Kherson, re-establishing a foothold in Luhansk.
These victories, along with strategic attacks against the Kerch Bridge and the Black Sea Fleet, have come with retaliation from Russia, particularly against the energy grids in Ukraine. This tactic has come at an opportunistic time for the Kremlin. Controlling the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant along with striking Ukrainian energy grids could have a detrimental effect on the civilian population in the upcoming winter.
Realizing his energy bluffs have failed in Europe as the EU gas reserves have more than passed their storage quota deadline, Vladimir Putin will look to instead freeze out tens of millions of Ukrainians. To mask battlefield losses this autumn, strikes have increased that have hit civilian population centers and energy grids, rarely hitting frontline troops.
Ukraine, which primarily has Soviet-era missile defense systems, such as the S-300s, has had problems against the Kalibr missile and Iranian-supplied Shahid drone strikes. This was seen in the accidental misfire in Poland, in which a battery attempted to intercept Russian cruise missiles.
The S-300s have a history of misfiring, with notable examples in Syria in which a Russian cargo plane was shot down accidentally by the Syrian Army and one missile veered off its trajectory of approximately two hundred miles from Syria and fell into Cyprus when it attempted to intercept an Israeli warplane. Russian forces converted the battery into a forward missile system during the war to cover for its depleted stockpiles. The results have been inaccurate launches against Ukrainian forward positions and often-hit civilian locations due to inaccuracies.
Despite the effectiveness of the NASAMS (National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems) the U.S Department of Defense sent, the Russian MOD has continued to hit other electrical and water facilities outside of Kyiv, which has caused heating problems in oblasts such as Kharkiv and Lviv. With major battles in Donetsk and Luhansk, along with the destruction of Mariupol this spring, residents living under Russian occupation will also face a brutal winter.
As the situation remains critical, the supply of western air defense systems now takes priority in the upcoming winter—so why hasn’t Ukraine been supplied with such systems? The answer depends on the pace of production in western nations.
Recently, some NATO members have raised fears of running low on weapons quantities needed to maintain defensive capabilities whereas Estonia’s PM Kaja Kallas has called on western nations to stop stalling the war and give Kyiv the weapons they need to end this war soon. Lockheed Martin has expanded recruitment in the U.S for more employees on its ever-expanding defense program as much of Washington’s weapons supplies to Ukraine come through the corporation.
Recently, Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov gloated about the energy grid strikes that are affecting Ukrainians in the winter, citing their unwillingness to negotiate over Russian occupied territories as “punishment.” Russian media has amplified these calls to strike the infrastructure and power grids as all other military strategies have failed thus far in the protracted war.
Hardliners in the Russian circle have praised this decision, with some, such as Wagner’s telegram channel, questioning the method as it has done little to change the outcome. Some have suggested a full mobilization instead as they realize the Ukrainian national spirit cannot be broken after ten months of war.
NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg highlighted the need to increase production for Ukraine in the long haul. Some analysts may see this as the alliance being unprepared for a major conflict, but this is for a different reason. NATO’s doctrine has fundamentally shifted to air superiority and dominance over the skies, whereas Kyiv’s primary needs come through infrastructure protection and ground armor. Nonetheless, Washington has struck deals with former states who were incorporated as Soviet satellites to send their old S300s in return for either F-16s or American air protection to support the war effort.
As the winter becomes grueling for frontline troops along with tens of millions of Ukrainian civilians, air defenses will become even more valuable to produce and protest. With numerous Russian aircraft losses in Kherson – one of the reasons they withdrew from the city – their strategy looks to expend western batteries given to Kyiv to ease the skies for their fixed wing.
The war more than ever will now go down to a constant flow of coordinated logistics. Whichever side can sustain itself overall will have a better tactical advantage as the conflict heads into the unforgiving Eastern European winter.
Julian McBride, a former U.S. Marine, is a forensic anthropologist and independent journalist born in New York. He reports and documents the plight of people around the world who are affected by conflicts, rogue geopolitics, and war, and also tells the stories of war victims whose voices are never heard. Julian is the founder and director of the Reflections of War Initiative (ROW), an anthropological NGO which aims to tell the stories of the victims of war through art therapy. As a former Marine, he uses this technique not only to help heal PTSD but also to share people’s stories through art, which conveys “the message of the brutality of war better than most news organizations.”